Updating seniors with information about the H1N1 flu virus and heat-related illnesses, Dr. Dennis Berner spoke at a recent Saint Mary’s Vintage Club “Lunch with your Doctor” in the hospital’s annex.

Dr. Berner is an internal medicine physician with Millard-Henry Clinic in Russellville. As he spoke to the capacity crowd in attendance, he prefaced his remarks by introducing his mother, Mrs. Lois Berner of Little Rock, formerly of Russellville.

Dr. Berner then gave the latest information available on the H1N1 influenza virus pandemic.

Originally termed “swine flu,” H1N1 is actually a new virus that includes three strains: the swine flu, bird flu and the human flu virus, he said.

He added that in late winter 2008, an outbreak of the flu began in Mexico. “The governing agencies were good to identify the outbreak, and acted quickly to close down many facilities to prevent further spread of the disease,” he said. “If you saw any soccer matches on television that were broadcast from Mexico, you would see that even the soccer stadiums were empty.”

Despite Mexico’s best efforts, the virus had already spread. By June, 100 countries had reported about 94,000 cases of the viruses. “This number doesn’t reflect how many cases there actually have been, because World Health Organization (WHO) officials have stopped tracking data estimates,” he said.

Because the virus has been isolated, Dr. Berner said, a vaccine can now be produced that will offer a 75 to 85 percent protection rate among recipients. The drug is expected to be available in the fall in limited quantities. “It may be rationed by the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention,), which we haven’t seen in the United States since World War II,” he said. He added that vaccines will be given first to those who are hospitalized with the disease, followed by those most at risk of contracting it.

Unlike other influenza strains that seem to affect the elderly and small children first, this virus appears first among those with chronic lung diseases, suppressed auto-immune systems, chronic heart failure and diabetes. Also at high risk are pregnant women, he said.

“It’s imperative that you get your flu shot this fall,” he added.

Moving then to heat-related illnesses, Dr. Berner spoke of the one incident where he saw a person with heat stroke.

“Heat stroke seldom occurs, but it is serious and dramatic. It is fatal 50 percent of the time,” he said. In the case he saw, in which the patient was a young Marine, the serviceman recovered only because of youth and relative good health. “If you survived it at an older age,” he said, “you would be sick for weeks.”

Heat stroke occurs when a person’s brain can no longer control the body’s cooling system. The internal body temperature rises to more than 105 degrees, which can cause brain and organ damage, and may result in coma and even death.

Besides exposure to extreme heat and humidity, two other factors can cause heat stroke.

A condition known as neuroleptic malignant syndrome can occur when strong psychotropic drugs are used. Patients develop heat stroke as they experience extremely high fever and body heat in reaction to the drugs.

Malignant hyperthermia can also cause heat stroke, although it rarely occurs today. This happens in reaction to gases used as anesthesia for surgery, and occurs in patients with a genetic predisposition to the syndrome. It is rare today because drugs are more commonly used than gases, Dr. Berner said.

Much more common than heat stroke is heat exhaustion, which is a warning sign that the body is getting overheated. With heat exhaustion, a person’s temperature can be elevated but isn’t extremely high. The skin is often pale and sweaty. Conditions such as dry mouth, headache, nausea, fatigue and dizziness can also occur.

To avoid heat exhaustion, Dr. Berner suggested wearing loose-fitting clothing and being exposed to extreme heat and humidity for only a few minutes at a time. Hydration is needed, but it isn’t necessary to drink more liquids than you need, he said. Water is best for hydration, he added, as sports drinks often contain more potassium and sodium than the body needs.

For more information about Saint Mary’s Vintage Club, or to inquire about upcoming events and luncheons, call Saint Mary’s Community Relations at 964-9355.